Afghan women defying labels
November 9th, 2010
06:23 AM ET

Afghan women defying labels

CNN’s Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jill Dougherty and CNN Senior State Department Producer Elise Labott recently returned from Afghanistan, where they traveled the country embedded with U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan, part of the Obama administration's civilian "surge." This is part of the series, "The Other Afghan Offensive."

The stereotype of women in Afghanistan is that they are oppressed. Invisible. Unable to contribute to society.

Many of the women we came across while traveling the country defied these labels.

Numerous women in Afghanistan still wear the burqa. Everywhere on the streets of Kabul, the country’s capital and most cosmopolitan city, you see powder blue cloth covering the women who wear it from head to toe. A small net screen, impenetrable from outsiders’ eyes, is their only window to the world.

One of the most enduring images was of a woman selling gum who knocked insistently on the window of our car as we drove slowly through Kabul’s traffic jams. Every inch of her was covered; she even wore black gloves in the sweltering heat. Not able to see her eyes, you could only imagine her life of obvious poverty. Yet there she was, on the street, trying to earn whatever money she could to support herself and her family. Her face was invisible. Her spirit was not.

More: Building a better future one paycheck at a time

Women say they feel protected by the burqa from the prying eyes of men. And yet it is women who must adapt themselves most radically to societal demands.

But even as they adapt, many Afghan women are finding ways to combat the narrative that Afghanistan’s long, sad past has shackled them with.

Lida Ahmady was trained as an elementary school teacher and her husband is fine with her working at that job. In school rooms, she aid, she would be surrounded by children and other women.

She wants to be a journalist, but has met fierce resistance from her husband and her family. Working as a radio reporter, she might encounter men, and in Afghanistan’s conservative, tribal-based society, it is forbidden for women to be with men unless they are accompanied by a male relative.

But her family’s reservations are not stopping her. Lida has convinced her husband to give her a chance. Studying journalism in Herat, in western Afghanistan, she is determined to make her mark as a journalist traveling throughout the country, writing stories about the problems women face.

One day, she told us, everyone in Afghanistan will know her name.

Her scarf covered in green paint, Shakila is only 18, working on a U.S-funded program teaching women how to paint and plaster at a women's health center in Jalalabad. The women earn money but also get training for future employment. Her father is disabled and she must support the family. She dreams of becoming a doctor.

In Jalalabad, we met women who were learning how to paint, plaster and do carpentry and electrical jobs — typically considered men's work — as part of a U.S.-funded cash-for-work program. Yet these women, their burqas covered in green paint, were working as hard as any man. One of the women has even started her own side painting business and is teaching her 14-year-old daughter the trade. It is amazing when women are given an opportunity; they grab it with both hands.

We saw the pride in young women's eyes as they gathered eagerly around a laboratory table to practice delivering a breech baby, part of a midwifery program in Herat. When they finish training in this U.S.-funded program, they will return to their villages as respected, educated women, helping to alleviate Afghanistan’s sky-high rate of infant and maternal mortality, but also having an impact on the role of women in their communities.

It felt positive — but tenuous. After emerging from years under the harsh rule of the Taliban who destroyed women’s schools, beat women for not wearing burqas and deprived women of any possibilities of employment outside the home, some Afghan women are fearful it could happen again.

If the Taliban are integrated into the Afghan government in the process of “reconciliation,” what will it cost women, they ask? Will peace come at the price of women’s freedom, even the limited freedom they now have?

soundoff (82 Responses)
  1. Hmm

    I heard from somewhere before that one of the most efficient ways to raise a society's overall level of education and living standards is to educate women, who usually play a bigger part in raising kids and running the household. Even the Quran says something like "Heaven is at your mother's feet."
    So all those people all over the world who are against the education of women, do they just fear/hate women, or do they really fear/hate the rest of humanity?

    December 3, 2010 at 6:51 pm | Report abuse |
  2. LarryKegel(US Army)

    Jerusalem mayor told to âevict Silwan settlers
    Khaleej Times Wed, 17 Nov 2010 09:09 AM PST
    JERUSALEM – Israelâs attorney-general has asked the Jerusalem city council to implement a 2007 court order evicting Jewish settlers from a building in east Jerusalem, the justice ministry said on Wednesday.

    November 18, 2010 at 9:20 am | Report abuse |
  3. LarryKegel(US Army)

    Apologist for Hamas: See No Evil, Hear No Evil

    A St. Petersburg Times correspondent stumbles blindly through Gaza, ignoring the worst aspects of Hamas rule.

    November 15, 2010 at 10:24 am | Report abuse |

    Well if being Human beings is a problem then i wonder what we could do else to change what is going on around us.

    November 15, 2010 at 3:37 am | Report abuse |
    • The Prophet Mohammed

      Finding some Politicans that actually care about the greater good would be a start, eliminating organised religeon would help immensly as well.

      November 15, 2010 at 8:58 am | Report abuse |
      • The Prophet Mohammed

        "Organized" sorry.

        November 15, 2010 at 8:58 am | Report abuse |
  5. LarryKegel(US Army)

    There is the 2 Percent of the People that Think They should be running the World!!! They feel They know what is best for the Rest of US...

    November 14, 2010 at 1:33 pm | Report abuse |
  6. The Prophet Mohammed

    @ Larry, are you a manic depressive becuase 1/2 the time you say respect other religeons and the rest of the time you are ranting and raving the Jews are the only true religeon. Just wondering.

    November 14, 2010 at 12:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • LarryKegel(US Army)

      You can not respect a Religion that keeps posting Their Religion on the Board!!! That is being disrespectful to the Other Religions!!!

      November 14, 2010 at 1:28 pm | Report abuse |
  7. The Prophet Mohammed

    @ seken the Paki- We are still waiting for your intelligent response.

    November 14, 2010 at 12:28 pm | Report abuse |

    Please have some sense all of you, we are all human beings.

    Please Follow what we believe in. " LOVE FOR ALL HATRED FOR NONE "

    November 14, 2010 at 8:34 am | Report abuse |
    • The Prophet Mohammed

      We are all human beings, well' that's the problem.

      November 14, 2010 at 12:08 pm | Report abuse |
      • LarryKegel(US Army)

        The problem is all the Right Wing Hate that there is in the World!!! They feel They should be running the World not the rest of us...

        November 14, 2010 at 1:39 pm | Report abuse |
  9. musician

    Let's try this experiment. For the next 12 months, all families/towns/countries that require women to be covered do the opposite. Require that the men be completely covered. Mandate that men leave the house only when accompanied by a female relative. Encourage women to throw acid in the face of boys who attends school. Applaud women and girls who burn down schools where boys learn. Praise women and girls who remind boys and men that they cannot bet full participants in their society. What would that do to the spirit of the men in those homes/towns/countries?
    What gifts have those families/towns/countries lost as a result of girls and women unable to realize their God-given talents, passions, and skills?

    November 13, 2010 at 7:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • The Prophet Mohammed

      So, let me get this straight, you want me to cover myself from head to toe in a Burqua, nothing else on underneath, that's not a punishment, I could entertain myself for hours every day.

      November 14, 2010 at 12:06 pm | Report abuse |
      • LarryKegel(US Army)

        We be better off If You would just keep quiet for that Time... So We could have a intelligent Conversation on Here for a while!!!

        November 14, 2010 at 1:37 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Msg4all

    @RSAT4 You don't understand Americans. Not all Americans are true Christians, some have other religions or are atheist(no religion). True Christians see Jesus the Prince of Peace. He will be riding on a white horse in Armegeddan(the last days and his returned coming before the Great White throne judgement, being judged by God the world Supreme Judge & Creator.All people will be judged, either you will go to heaven or will permanently die & will be burned in the abyss where the evil one comes from according to your deeds on earth while you were alive. True Christians seek peace. Some Christians are counterfeits just like Taliban are counterfeits of their religion. Moslem extremist countries are killing & maiming their own women & children & brothers. US does not enjoy what's happening over there. They're fighting against oppression & terrorists (a threat to world safety) We are sad in the west that innocent people are dying in the crossfires of war in Afgh. Some of us cry for these children & women under oppression.We also cry for our soldiers dying for a people who don't want them there. If troops weren't there an even larger amount of Afgh people would have died already.The world doesn't want Afgh to live in oppression & fear.The taliban won't surrender, they are rebellious, tyrannical brutal killers, they don't know the way of peace or repentance. (Jesus said "Peace, Be still, know that I am with you.) Be still & quiet in order to hear what he is saying to you.Pray for peace. It would be nice if everyone would lay down their guns and stop fighting.

    November 13, 2010 at 2:35 am | Report abuse |
    • The Prophet Mohammed

      @ Msg4all- Yes that would be nice, unfortunately the people of the middle east have been fighting ever since they learned to throw rocks, and there is nothing but rocks over here.

      November 13, 2010 at 12:28 pm | Report abuse |
  11. kate

    Why are you pasting the same comment over and over? are you too lazy to type another of your enlightened statements?

    November 12, 2010 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • RSAT4

      Its very hard to get to american ears, I am trying my level best to get in it. I am happy because you seems to be getting the massage, all I asked from you is to spread massage to all Americans. I belief if you guys can change your way of approaching things this world will be safer place. Why cant you learn from South Africans. A Gun is not solution, the best thing is to seat down and sort your differences. God has given us brain which powerfull than all creatures, so why cant we use it. Yes we go for fight okay, we fight.. fight.. fight but at end of the day we will need to seat down and talk. Why didn't we take the shortcut and avoid fighting.

      All I can tell you is that there was way of dealing with 9-11 ortherthan going to war. Yes I agree people died there and i am not happy about that and belief no one has right to kill another person. What you should have done to those whom you think are responsible is to find a movite behind their actions. Tell me, have you solve anything by going to war, the answer is big NO! but instead you have worsen the situation. Anyway I am black christian South African who doesn't in war. Yes country might have crime but we are working on it and we are aware that people are doing crime because of hunger. Amen!

      November 13, 2010 at 1:18 am | Report abuse |
  12. Giga

    This article is very enlightening. It address the strength and power of some women. I think some comments posted here are a little off base. However, I enjoy the freedom of speech we have. So, I say Peace be with all of you, wherever you may be, whatever religion you have chosen, whichever ethnicity you belong to or gender you have been assigned.

    November 11, 2010 at 11:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • The Prophet Mohammed

      @ Giga- Thank you very much. For the record I belong to a very elite group of fishermen who steel head fish though I won't turn my head away from a chance to trout, bass, pike or crappie fish whether it is spinning, casting, fly or float .As a Fishermen I welcome all to my sacred sport (more like a religeon) regardless of skin color, s3x, religeon whatever just as long as they don't out fish me, then of course they have to be excommunicated. Fish On!

      November 14, 2010 at 12:34 pm | Report abuse |
      • LarryKegel(US Army)

        You are the most Rude Person on Here!!! Can't You even try to talk like a Civilize Person when You talk???

        November 14, 2010 at 1:31 pm | Report abuse |
      • The Prophet Mohammed

        @ Larry- I COULD, I just choose not to, being serious is not nearly as much fun. Thanks for the concern.

        November 15, 2010 at 8:56 am | Report abuse |
  13. Dindy.....


    November 11, 2010 at 10:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • LarryKegel(US Army)

      I would tell You if They weren't!!!

      November 14, 2010 at 1:29 pm | Report abuse |
  14. LarryKegel(US Army)

    That is the Stupidest Thing ever said here!!! There is only One GOD and The Jews are the only ones that PRAY to GOD!!!

    November 11, 2010 at 5:36 pm | Report abuse |
  15. The Prophet Mohammed

    They are a Plague to themselves.

    November 10, 2010 at 1:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • The Prophet Mohammed

      @ Larry- Have some faith brother! America is home and inventor of many great things, like M&Ms, Potato Chips, Hot Dogs and land of the great BBQs. Sure they invented light bulbs and discovered how to utilize electricy and stuff but the really important things like potato choips? It's good to live in America.

      November 13, 2010 at 12:25 pm | Report abuse |
  16. T. 'Coco' Loren

    Wonderful article Jill! Please keep reporting on the success of women in Afghanistan who are given the chance to work and learn new skills. These brave women are pushing the boundaries of what it means to be an Afghan woman, and we must do more to support them. After reading about the Girl Effect, I founded to help educate others about the need to support women and girls in Afghanistan. Articles like these, by amazing women like Jill Dougherty, shed light on the continued need to support the people of Afghanistan. Thank you again Jill and CNN for a great article. Please keep them coming.

    November 10, 2010 at 10:24 am | Report abuse |
    • LarryKegel(US Army)

      May GOD watch over Those that are trying to make Their Country a better place to live!!!

      November 11, 2010 at 5:31 pm | Report abuse |
  17. kathy

    There are many areas that the males in control want to prevent girls from getting an education. Afghanistan is one area where the Taliban have even bombed girl's schools to keep them from getting an education. Personally, I think these males are very afraid that if these girls get a basic education, they will surpass almost all of the males thus showing that girls and women are by far the superior gender. If they can do this with a basic education, what would they do with an advanced education?

    Now that more women are getting an advanced education, they are surpassing most males in almost every area and actually, I know several males who have told me they are glad women are the superior gender, I am glad that it is women who are too of course . From what I see of most males, I would not like thinking that they were. I think we need to encourage women and girls to get the advanced degrees even though the males will be left miles behind them. If life was a play, women would be the stars while males would only play supporting roles so perhaps males need to move out of the way and let women take control and clean up the mess we have made of society; It will only help everyone including the males.

    November 10, 2010 at 3:44 am | Report abuse |
    • LarryKegel(US Army)

      Maybe if This Country would start doing the right thing towards Their People... The rest of the World would start doing it too!!! But all they see how corrupted this Country really is and does the same thing in Their Countries...

      November 11, 2010 at 5:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dindy.....

      Kathy God made the Man first.

      November 11, 2010 at 10:26 pm | Report abuse |
      • Simple but true

        Men & women are spiritually equal, whether man was created first & woman was formed from Adams rib (cloned). No man should hate woman because according to Christian beliefs she was formed as part of him. They become one when joined in marraige. Women are equal, it's a mystery, you need to get the spiritual revelation on this. A man & woman are part of each other, one physically stronger, one stronger in other areas, created as a compliment to the other.

        November 13, 2010 at 1:22 am | Report abuse |
      • The Prophet Mohammed

        Ribs are delicous!

        November 13, 2010 at 12:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Simple but true

      I don't agree that women are the superior gender. You have gone overboard in what you're saying. Men and women are equal, neither one better than the other. If you think you're superior as a women you're just as bad as how some men treat women, it won't be long & you'll be mistreating them if you haven't already. Don't lose your feminity and get rid of hidden hatred which you seem to be displaying. Men & women were created to work "together" as a team.

      November 13, 2010 at 1:32 am | Report abuse |
  18. Dindy.....

    Dan Lafayette..........some people only believe old testimony only. In the glorious Quran they speak about the birth of Jesus only.

    November 9, 2010 at 10:10 pm | Report abuse |
  19. tmore

    When they discussed the reason behind why the women in Afghanistan covered themselves from the prying eyes of men, I realized how admirable that was. No matter what obstacles their wardrobe and burqas may cause them, these women gave it their all. I feel that all women deserve the right to chose how they dress, and men should respect them regardless of cultural tradtions. When the story discuesses how women today are defying these tradtions, with the support of their spouses, it makes me proud. Regardless of what their families say, these women are doing what they feel is right. Hopefully thier new found independence inspires more women of their cultural to do what they feel is right.

    November 9, 2010 at 9:38 pm | Report abuse |